Another perennial topic that poets always seem to enjoy debating – what are the ‘banned’ words? The word ‘shard’ came up the other evening at Hasting Stanza and I couldn’t help but mention that it was ‘on the list’ – to which the response was, ‘can you do a blog post about this?’
Is it really the case that certain words, inserted innocently into what might be an otherwise excellent poem, can somehow poison the entire piece? That it can ruin your chance of getting the poem published, shortlisted, or even taken seriously? What are these words? And who decides what they are?
The debate has fascinated me ever since I first fell foul of the banned words police, using – yes – shard, in a poem that I took to workshop a few years back. There was no mass outrage, just a gentle murmuring about it having to go.
The first thing to remember is that many people will say the banned words thing is ridiculous. The second is that those same people will often, when their buttons are pushed, turn out to have their own personal list of words they’d never use. I don’t think there are words that everyone agrees should be avoided. Even the most commonly-quoted ones (shard, myriad, tesserae) sometimes slip through. But editors/judges/tutors have their own opinions, and you can’t always know what they are.
I also think that, like language generally, the list is probably in continual flux. The point being that the ‘banned words’ aren’t necessarily evil or tasteless in themselves, they’ve just been overused, misused and abused. But if everyone studiously avoids ‘cumulus’, there will come a day when it will sound fresh, and we’ll start using it again. And you’ve only got to look at today’s poetry magazines to realise there’s a new generation of words that are shaping up nicely for membership of The List. I also think there should be a ‘bad sex in poetry’ sister award to that for Bad Sex in Fiction. But that’s another post!
If you’re interested in avoiding the banned word landmines, Frances Spurrier lists a few classics here. Mary Lou Taylor attributes a number of them (including ‘shard’ and – one on my personal list – ‘soul’) to Bill Greenwell.
There’s an ever-evolving list (although I’m not sure if anything ever gets taken off it) at the suspiciously anonymous Pretend Genius. Gems here range from the obviously archaic ‘quoth’ to the more baffling ‘Jennifer’ (number 46). Jennifer? Really? (If you know why, please let me know!) Anyway, I can say with 100% certainty that I have fallen foul of this particular list many times. (‘Black’? ‘Leaf’?) Plus, ‘death’ appears twice… so maybe I’ve just been had. Good fun though 🙂
If you agree or disagree please tell us – have you done well in the NPC with a poem about shards of light peeking through the cumulus? Perhaps you’ve been told never to use the word ‘potato’ in a poem? We need to know!